my fieldwork has recently led me to question the misleading distinctions that pepper discourse around housing in the UK. tenants renting from 'social landlords' are increasingly dealing with exactly the same unregulated tenancies that private market renters face, with all of the attendant insecurities. for a start, social housing providers are increasingly choosing to introduce fixed-term tenancies over lifetime/assured tenancies. controls around the cost of social renting are also increasingly dubious; councils and housing associations can now charge an 'affordable rent' that is 80% of the market rate - 'market' denoting the maximum that a landlord can reasonably expect to receive, which is understandably formulated in the interest of landlords and not their tenants.
housing associations (HAs) are private organisations that are 'non-profit-making'. in the UK, non-profit-making basically means that these organisations don't have any shareholders, but they have all the other benefits of corporate status. despite their non-profit status, there's a lot of money to be made in HA management. chief execs of HAs can expect to rake in 6 figure salaries basically across the board. Keith Exford, the CEO of Clarion - one of the UK's biggest HAs - earned £376,199 in 2016/2017. a third of HAs awarded their CEOs bonuses in this tax year, too. the average housing officer meanwhile earns £21k. income for HA staff is generated by rents and service charges paid by their tenants.
i recently presented a discussion of my research at an event in hackney, attended by local renters and other interested people. a member of staff from the housing charity shelter also gave a presentation about the history of land value and property discourse in the UK. in the discussions that followed our presentations, there was some disagreement over what constitutes private and social sector. the presenter from shelter was adamant that the 44% social housing statistic I had given for Hackney was indicative of a wonderfully strong level of housing provision for lower-income residents in the borough. 'gentrification', too, was for him simply something that connoted social housing tenants being pushed out of their local areas by rising rents. my contention is that the lumping-together of all people who cannot afford private *market* rents as 'social tenants' ignores the multiplicity of experiences among them. some of their tenancies effectively function in exactly the same way as a private market renter. the only difference is that they are paying less. in this way, they are plucked out of the discourse around insecure private tenancies, and instead thought of as being catered for by state-regulated bodies.
this is a misleading dichotomy and one that i think also needs to be addressed in grassroots activism around housing justice. there is more common ground between social and private renters than there is distance. making distinctions based on the ability to access private sector markets is class discrimination. hopefully there will be more opportunities in the coming weeks for me to talk to 'social tenants' living in a variety of privately-rented, council-rented, and HA-rented properties, to get a wider picture of these complexities.